If defense wins championships, the Michigan hockey team (0-1) has a ways to go.
Keeping the opponent off the scoreboard has been a struggle for the Wolverines thus far. The defense was not supposed to be a question mark coming into the season with the returns of senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi and sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes. However, the team has surrendered at least four goals in each of their first three games this season, two of them exhibitions.
A lack of defensive intensity reared its ugly head once again on Friday night against the U.S. National Team Development Program. The USNTDP poured in three goals in the first period and followed it up by scoring twice in the first two minutes of the second period. This was enough for Michigan coach Mel Pearson to make a change in the crease.
“I thought we were very casual, loosey-goosey with the puck all over the ice,” Pearson said. “So, we’re going to have to shore that up. It’s not necessarily the system as much as it is individual decisions and playmaking.”
When freshman goalkeeper Strauss Mann entered the game on Friday night, his team was already down 5-2 and the pacey USNTDP offense showed no signs of slowing down. Just minutes after Mann entered in relief of junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne, freshman defenseman Nick Blankenberg turned over the puck in front of the net and USNTDP forward Ryder Rolston quickly gathered the puck and slotted it past Mann, putting his team up, 6-3.
What ensued turned into a silver lining for the Wolverines in what was an otherwise poor performance: Mann shut out the USNTDP for the remainder of the game, making 17 saves and snuffing out multiple two-on-one and breakaway opportunities.
“One bright spot for us tonight was Strauss Mann,” Pearson said. “Strauss came in, and we didn’t give him much help at times in the third period, and I thought he did an excellent job.
Despite coming in cold off the bench and surrendering an early goal, Mann displayed mental fortitude beyond his freshman label.
In his first appearance of the season against Waterloo, Mann allowed a goal on a bouncing puck from center ice. This time, a turnover in front of the net left Mann on an island without any defensive help. In both appearances, Mann overcame an early mistake and stayed even-keeled in the net.
The scoring opportunities continued for the USNTDP on Friday, but unlike the first 30 minutes of the game, it was not able to find the back of the net. Mann was formidable in the crease and gave Michigan an opportunity to fight their way back into the game.
“I thought he buckled down (after the early goal),” Pearson said. “They had some two-on-oh’s, some breakaways, scramble shots. He did a really good job of finding the puck and making it look fairly easy … He’s going to be good, he’s going to be good … you saw those flashes from him tonight.”
In Mann, Michigan has a complementary option to Lavigne if he struggles again and perhaps the team’s net minder of the future.